Jenna Coughlin, PhD

Researcher and Lecturer: Scandinavian Studies & Environmental Humanities

As an instructor who teaches courses in Norwegian language, Scandinavian literature, media, and culture, and Environmental Studies, I draw on multiple disciplines and pedagogical approaches when designing and delivering a course. A key to my development as a teacher has been to avail myself of opportunities to learn pedagogical approaches from experts, such as antiracist pedagogy, decolonizing pedagogies, and Universal Design for Learning. Those approaches that resonate most with my teaching philosophy share an emphasis on building authentic relationships with students and creating a learning community in which students’ full identities are welcomed and recognized. During one faculty training session, an experienced colleague once shared this insight: “I don’t teach content, I teach students.” I often reflect on this statement when I am considering how to handle a challenging pedagogical moment, whether while planning a course or in the classroom. It allows me to picture the students who will be reading the syllabus or assignment prompt, taking notes on a lecture, or receiving feedback on a paper. I believe that the degree to which I consider their situations and experiences, and the extent to which I model mutual respect by listening to and acknowledging their unique humanity, lays the groundwork for learning to take place. Abiding by the principle that I teach students rather than subjects has allowed me to develop relationships of trust that enable deeper learning to occur, as students become open to change and recognize the relevance of course objectives to their lives.

One way to promote trust is through transparency in course design. I do this first of all by communicating clear course objectives that I refer to at multiple times throughout the semester, connecting each new text or language learning unit to the larger objectives it is designed to meet. Both trust in students’ abilities and acknowledgment of their differences can be demonstrated by allowing for choice in assignment design. Although the course otherwise emphasizes academic writing, in the summative assessment for “Nordic Nature,” students can either analyze a Nordic tourism video in an academic essay or submit a creative artifact that provides an alternative vision. Students have demonstrated nuanced understandings of course texts and concepts in both formats, and it has been particularly exciting to witness students who excel in a creative medium express learning in a form that is comfortable for them. In order for students to be willing to take risks in the classroom, they must also develop trusting relationships with their peers. One way I promote this in the classroom is through in-class, small group writing conducted on whiteboards or large pieces of paper. I often require students to produce specific written work, such as a sample claim and supporting evidence, which we then revise together as a group. I conclude these group work sessions with a “gallery walk,” in which groups rotate through the classroom, making observations or suggestions for the other groups. This promotes a supportive classroom culture, in which collaboration is the goal, rather than competition. I have found this technique to be even more effective when student groups are rotated often, encouraging students to form relationships with as many members of the class as possible.

 “A classroom cannot truly be equitable without challenging racism and bias explicitly in the classroom”

However, a classroom cannot truly be equitable without challenging racism and bias explicitly in the classroom, as well as acknowledging how the intersectional identities of students, instructors, and the assigned writers and scholars impact the learning environment. In the language classroom, I begin the semester with a conversation about what being “Norwegian” means to students, and what their own relationships to “Norwegianness” are. This conversation helps students to recognize how different their perceptions and experiences can be, and consider how they might become more sensitive to the views of others. In Nordic content courses, I have implemented a discussion early in the semester in which students volunteer ideas about what a stereotypical Norwegian person looks like before presenting examples of notable Nordic figures who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. We discuss how such figures clearly challenge the homogenous presentation of the Nordic countries in media, and what ideas and biases might contribute to that oversimplified presentation. Rather than merely acknowledging this topic in passing, taking the time to address race and racism directly sends a clear message that although it may not always be comfortable, this topic is welcome and can be discussed in a productive manner. When we later read texts that address topics such as racism and colonialism, students will likely be more open to discuss them because “Nordic” identity has already been presented as a concept open to critical inquiry.

“These reflections served as a poignant reminder to me of the power of literature, and why I am motivated to study and teach it”

My goal as an instructor is that this basis of trust and respect will facilitate deeper learning. Given that students are sometimes unfamiliar with the kind of literary fiction or poetry I assign, I ask them to pose and answer reflexive questions that prompt them to consider the impact a given text has had on them and its relevance for their lives. Asking students to do so in response to Arctic literature resulted in impressive insights on topics such as the misrepresentation of this region in popular culture, the resilience of Arctic peoples, and the representation of gender. These reflections served as a poignant reminder to me of the power of literature, and why I am motivated to study and teach it. If students come away from a course I have taught with a greater understanding of the contribution that the study of literature, language, and media can make in their lives, whether by gaining a personal insight that benefits their relationships, learning something of relevance for their future profession, or mastering an academic concept useful in their studies, then I consider my work to have been successful.